See Inside October 2009

Privacy and the Quantum Internet

Courtesy of some of the weirdest laws of physics, we may someday be able to search and surf the Web without anyone collecting our data

MICROZOA Getty Images; SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN (graphic on computer)

Privacy is hard to come by these days, particularly on the Internet, where every time you Google something your desires are recorded for posterity—or at any rate, for advertisers.

Internet search companies say they protect their clients’ privacy by encrypting personal information and by using numbers instead of names to give their users anonymity. The problem is that anonymization is not always effective. AOL user number 4417749 found this out the hard way in 2006 when AOL decided to publish online a list of 20 million Web searches, including hers and those of 657,000 other users. Reporters were able to track down the 62-year-old widow in Lilburn, Ga., by analyzing the content of her searches. Luckily, Thelma Arnold was relatively unembarrassed by the revelation of her identity and intimate interests. How many of us could say the same?

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